Thursday, March 22, 2012

Scofflaw Legislators Fund Religious Schools Despite Constitutional Ban

Program Supports Lots of Dogma and Little Quality

In a nation where voters have consistently and overwhelmingly voted against tax payer funding of religious and private schools, the Florida state government has been diverting hundreds of millions of dollars to do just that, in spite of a state constitution that specifically forbids such action. The photo shows a rally of religious leaders and their flocks marching in Tallahassee to pressure lawmakers to further expand state funding of scholarships to their schools.
How could this happen? In what one researcher called a "backdoor scam," the legislature simply created a program that "redirects" corporate taxes into non-profit organizations that distribute the money to scholarships for private schools, 78% of which are classified as religious.  Thus the tax revenue never lands in public coffers in the first place. The Florida government has broken the spirit of the law by circumventing it.
In Alachua County, of the 21 private schools that receive scholarship ("FTC") funds, 17 are religious. That includes one Krishna school, two Catholic schools, and the rest Baptist, Church of God, Seventh Day Adventist, and so-called non-denominational or "Christian" church schools like  the Pentacostal church school, Christian Life Academy. The amount of scholarship money going to the 21 schools is about $1,160,977. Marion county private or church schools got over $1,000,000 more than that.  These number pale in comparison to Dade County, where 107 religious schools are among 246 private schools that have gotten about $33,000,000 in state funding, and Duval, where 102 private schools, 79 of them religious, have raked in $12,000,000 in scholarship money.
The state program was originally called the Florida Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program, but in recent years the legislature left off the word "Corporate." Corporations who "donate" to it are rewarded with a 100% tax credit for the amount they gave.  That means if a corporation gives $1,000,000 to the scholarship, it doesn't have to pay $1,000,000 in income taxes to the state. It can donate up to 75% of its tax liability. Walgreen Drugs has given $28,000,000 so far. Although a corporation can keep its donations secret, many publicize their donations, garnering good press for supposedly helping  poor children get a good education. Since the organization that technically receives the donation is a non-profit, a federal income tax charitable donation tax deduction is possible. Although the Florida state website doesn't advertise this fact, a similar state program in Georgia openly promises  potential corporate donors a federal charitable contribution letter.
 In spite of having to cut its share of funding for public schools in recent years, the state has steadily increased its funding of private school education. In the 2010-11 school year, $129,474,868 was donated to scholarships to send poor children to private schools. The cap on funding for the current 2011-12 school year is $175,000,000 and is slated to go up every year.  According to the Website of the non-profit that doles out the money, Step up for Children, 83% of scholarship students attend religious schools. Catholic schools comprise the largest segment of these schools. Many others are fundamentalist church schools.
How do our lawmakers and policymakers justify this funding of church schools? They say poor children need to have a "choice." House Speaker Mike Haridopolis explained to an audience at the Bob Graham Center that poor children need a chance to escape failing public schools. The facts don't support his contention. Only 7% of students come from schools rated by the state as D or F schools. Forty per cent come from A schools and 53% come from B or C schools.
There is also no evidence to support the contention that students learn more in these schools. In the ten years of the program, the private school students "barely kept up" with their public school counterparts in all but one year, and the small difference then was not statistically significant.
In fact there is little evidence the students will get a better or equivalent education at these schools. The state does not require the same high standards that public schools must meet. The teachers do not have to be certified, and the school curriculum does not have to meet any standards such as those required for school accreditation.  The students themselves are not held up to the same standards as public school students. In fact, if a student can't pass the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Tests, he or she can avoid the ordeal by attending a private or religious school, on the tax payers' dime.
Since religious schools are founded to perpetuate the religion, dogma and indoctrination play a significant part of their programs. In fact, several local  school websites quote the bible verse from Proverbs that says, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it."  At Gainesville's Catholic high school, St. Francis, students are required to take four full years of Catholic theology. Local fundamentalist schools teach a Bible based curriculum using special religious text books that replace science with bible stories, and that rewrite American history to support the religion's dogma.  One civics text states, "God's original purpose for government was to punish the evil and reward the good." The same text describes the ideal form of government. "All governments are ordained by God, but none compare to government by God, theocracy." They call their approach a "biblical world view."
The term "choice" is also a questionable descriptor since options are limited for poor students. For one thing, the private schools do the choosing, not the students. In addition, most non-sectarian quality schools and many high quality religious schools like St Francis would still be too expensive for students qualifying for the scholarship without additional help.  Affordable schools that charge the same tuition as the scholarship are often small fundamentalist schools that increase the tuition for non-members of the church, forcing the family to either join or come up with more money.
Lawmakers and the program administrators claim the program saves money, but only by a crude computation: the state spends over $6,000 per year per child for public schools, but only about $4,000 for private school scholarships. Therefore savings.  For the state maybe, but not local jurisdictions. Loss of those students means loss of  both state and federal funds to local districts. These funds are dependent upon the number of students enrolled. Furthermore, the expenses of the school for facilities and programs don't go down as a result of the loss of students. Large counties such as Duval (Jacksonville) suffer the most. Duval lost $20,000,000 in additional funding as a result of the almost 3,000 students lost to the scholarship program.
If the Florida Tuition Scholarship program hurts public schools, indirectly funds religions and can't even guarantee a better "choice" for poor students, why do our senators and representative to Tallahassee cynically support it?   Answer: They get votes and other support from well-organized churches. Their corporate partners get good press from the enterprise, and the churches get, well, your tax money, like it or not.
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